Nov. 15, 2012
Harding head coach familiar with Bearcat football
Get to know … Harding
A look at the school, program and team that Northwest Missouri State meets in Saturday’s first round of the Division II playoffs.
Located in Searcy, Ark., 50 miles northeast of Little Rock and some eight hours south of Maryville. Church-based liberal arts university has an enrollment of 7,155, about 300 higher than Northwest’s.
You might know
Former major-league pitcher Elwin “Preacher” Roe once was a student there. So was former federal judge and U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, who gained famed as Independent Counsel for the Whitewater investigation that clouded the presidential administration of Bill Clinton.
The football program
In its 63rd season, it has an overall record of 288-294-18. Moved from the NAIA to the NCAA’s Division II in 1997. Bisons are in their second year in the Great American Conference.
This will be the two programs’ first meeting.
Like Northwest counterpart Adam Dorrel, Ronnie Huckeba goes back a long way with his school. He was a standout offensive lineman for Harding in the 1970s. He spent 21 years as an assistant, most on the defensive side but also a couple as offensive coordinator, and now is in his sixth season as head coach. He’s 31-30.
Bisons are making their first appearance in their 16 seasons in the NCAA. They reached the NAIA playoffs twice, losing in the first round in 1989 (to Emporia State) and 1992 (to Central State). Last postseason win came vs. Langston in the 1972 Cowboy Bowl, which was staged for two years in Lawton, Okla.
Finished the regular season 9-1 and second to unbeaten Henderson State in the GAC. Lone loss was to Henderson, 38-10 on Oct. 13, a game in which Harding’s triple-option running game managed just 3.5 yards a carry and its defense surrendered 466 yards and five TDs passing.
Seeded fifth among the six playoff teams coming out of the NCAA’s Super Region 3, one spot behind Northwest on the basis of schedule strength. Harding’s opponents finished a combined 50-54, only four with winning records. (Northwest’s finished a combined 61-52, six with winning records.) Harding moved this week to No. 12 in the coaches’ poll, the Bisons’ highest ranking as an NCAA member and a spot ahead of the Bearcats.
Harding’s Flexbone hugs the ground even more (on 86% of its plays) than Missouri Southern’s triple option. Quarterback Kelvin Martin, who has run for 10 touchdowns and passed for seven, is one of only two senior starters in the unit. Fullbacks Romo Westbrook and D’Nico Jackson-Best are a diminutive 5-9 and 5-6, respectively, and the two starting slotbacks are 5-8 and 5-7. The line averages 271 pounds a man, 30 fewer than Missouri Western’s. But the speedy Bisons boast the nation’s fifth-best rushing attack (322.2 yards per game), and hog the ball an average of nine more minutes than their opponents. They piled up 1,201 yards and 15 TDs rushing in their last three games vs. Arkansas Tech, Southeastern Oklahoma and Southwestern Oklahoma. In all, 12 different players have run for TDs.
As for the passing game
It ranks 152nd among the 158 teams in Division II, adding a little less than 81 yards a game. Martin and backup Keenan Kellett have thrown just 97 times in 10 games, completing 42 with six interceptions.
One more offensive stat
Harding also has coughed up six turnovers (five fumbles and an interception) in those last three games.
Only four teams in the country have given up fewer than the 273.8 yards a game allowed by the Bisons, and just five (including Northwest) have surrendered fewer than their 15.5 points. It starts up front, with ends Ty Powell and Josh Aldridge combining for 14 sacks and 24 overall tackles for losses. They’re two of nine starting seniors in the unit.
One more asset
Sophomore kicker John Gay, who walked on a year ago, has hit 14 of 18 field goal attempts, including three of four beyond the 40-yard line. His longest: 44.
The common opponent
Northwest beat East Central (Okla.) 33-3 in its Aug. 30 opener in Maryville. The Bearcats’ Trevor Adams threw three interceptions, but the defense limited East Central to 48 yards rushing and forced four turnovers. Harding defeated the Tigers 31-14 four weeks later, also at home, trailing midway through the second quarter and then scoring 24 unanswered points. The Bisons’ running game rumbled for 381 yards. Their defense was dominant, holding East Central to a total of 84 yards.
By: Steve Wieberg
Ronnie Huckeba had a plan when he took over as Harding’s head football coach five years ago. He just felt he needed a little help – and knew where to go after it.
Immediately after his first season, which saw the Bisons finish a respectable 6-4, the former star lineman and longtime Harding assistant made the 470-mile drive to Maryville to pick the brain of the man who’d built Northwest Missouri State into a Division II powerhouse. He shadowed Mel Tjeerdsma as the Bearcats prepared for their playoff opener vs. West Texas A&M.
“I thought, ‘OK, where’s the best place to go to be around somebody who knows how to do this, who’s obviously proven?’ ” Huckeba recalled Thursday. “I immediately thought of Coach Tjeerdsma. I called and asked if I could come, and he said ‘absolutely.’ ”
He spent a couple of days inside the program, picking the brain of the now-retired Tjeerdsma, taking in practices and weight-room sessions and getting acquainted with Scott Bostwick, Adam Dorrel and the rest of the Northwest staff.
Five years later, Huckeba and Harding are 9-1 and part of the D-II playoff lineup for the first time in the program’s 16-year history in the NCAA. One guess as to where they must open.
They’ll meet Northwest Missouri State in Bearcat Stadium at noon Saturday.
“It’s pretty ironic, isn’t it?” Huckeba said. “But it’s just like I told people down here: What better way to judge whether or not you’re ready, playing against arguably the most successful Division II program in the last two decades?”
His team could test Northwest, as well, rolling out a triple-option Flexbone offense that ranks fifth in the country in rushing, averaging nearly 5.5 yards a carry and better than 322 yards a game. A senior-laden defense has given up just 19 rushing and passing touchdowns in 10 games, same as Northwest.
The question is whether Harding’s option attack can do what Missouri Southern’s couldn’t last month – the Lions totaled just 258 yards in a 38-14 loss to Northwest – and the degree to which the Bisons’ softer schedule has prepared them for a top-of-the-MIAA opponent. There’s also the matter of how they’ll handle stepping onto the playoff stage for the first time against a program that has reached seven national championship games and won three of them. Northwest’s current string of nine playoff appearances is the longest in Division II.
Huckeba points out that his players walked in front of a crowd of almost 11,000 in their Sept. 8 opener in Florence, Ala., annual site of the D-II title game. And they didn’t blink, beating North Alabama 31-10.
“We handled that great,” he said. “I don’t, in any way that this will be that type of football team (to be intimidated) when we take the field Saturday. It’s just not who these kids are. Now, we’ve never done it before; I could be wrong. But that’s my gut feeling.”
He nonetheless has a firsthand understanding of the challenge.
Huckeba, whose two daughters-in-law graduated from Northwest Missouri State, remains taken by Tjeerdsma’s graciousness during his visit there and wowed by what he observed.
“I wanted to look at their players, and then I wanted to get his basic philosophy on how you get a program to where he had gotten that one,” he said.
“I was just impressed by the whole operation.”
That Northwest team would play into the Division II championship game against Valdosta State, coming away with the third of third of four consecutive runner-up finishes before winning it all in 2009.
This one, Huckeba and the Bisons will try to head off far earlier.
Steve Wieberg wrapped up a nearly 30-year career with USA TODAY in July. A native Missourian who lives just outside the Kansas City area, he was part of the national newspaper’s original startup staff in 1982 and focused his coverage on college football and basketball and NCAA issues. He also worked eight summer and winter Olympics.
Wieberg is a longtime member of the Football Writers Association of America and an inductee into U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame. His work has earned more than two dozen national writing awards.
In October 2007, he was named by The Chronicle of Higher Education as one of the “10 Most Powerful People in College Sports.”
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